The 10:42 pm train out of Atlantic City leaves on time, and I'm happy not to be driving back to Philly, for a change, so I can read. Reading is what I'm doing when a man perhaps fifty years breathing stumbles on at Hammonton and stops in the aisle beside my seat. I can smell the booze sweating out of him as I feel his look. My eyes remain fixed on the pages in front of them. The guy sits down and talks to himself. "You ain't gonna rob this train. You ain't gonna start a fight. Gonna get home. Finally gonna get home."
"Ticket." commands the ticket checker.
The man produces a crumpled up, skinny piece of paper anyone would know is not a ticket for this train. "Bus driver told me I could use this to transfer."
The ticket checker hands the man back the wrinkled slip of paper. "This isn't a ticket for this train. You—"
"But the bus driver—"
"I'm trying to tell you—"
"But he said—"
"Doesn't matter what he said and if you'll stop interrupting—"
"—I'll tell you how it is. You need to get off at the next stop."
"You ain't throwing me off now?"
"I can't stop the train now that it's moving again."
The man nods and looks down toward his feet, presumably in acceptance of his fate. "What's the next stop?"
"Atco," answers the ticket checker, and walks on.
A few minutes pass and I read on without looking around. I hear the man say "What you readin'?"
I look up at him and hold the book out so he can see its title, which I'm sure he doesn't compute. He has close cropped whitish grey hair, a gold stud earring in his left ear, and the most crooked nose I've ever seen. He wears a black Harley shirt with orange writing and sleeves cut off, revealing faded, dark green tattoos set on thin, muscular arms.
"Any good?" he asks.
"Yeah," I say, "pretty good."
I go back to reading and hear him start up talking to himself again. His head is lowered toward his lap, shaking back and forth, mumbling. "Not gonna fight. Gotta get home."
I peek over at his hands to see what they're doing. They're by his sides, but in constant motion.
"Hey," he says.
I look up at him again, but this time I think to myself if you fuck with me, I'll kill you and do my best to make him feel that vibe from me, make him hear my thoughts.
"You know if there's a Wawa near the Atco stop?"
I shake my head, still giving him my best don't-fuck-with-me look. "No, dunno."
When the train pulls up to the Atco stop, the man slowly stands and stumbles off the same way he stumbled on. He mutters something like "Gonna get home. Little closer now."
I feel sorry for him, but whatever sequence of events landed him where he is on this Thursday evening, I have a feeling he's no victim.
When the train starts moving, as we pull away from Atco, the ticket checker passes by again.